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In policy making?: Farm groups losing influence in Senate?

Is the U.S. Senate making a sea change in how it writes farm policy? For years, the Senate — and the House, for that matter — generally has followed the lead of the major farm and commodity organizations when it came time to write farm legislation.

Recently, however, the Senate shrugged off a letter drafted by the major farm groups expressing opposition to an amendment imposing stricter limits on farm payments and passed it by an overwhelming majority.

In rejecting the recommendations by the majors, some sponsors of the amendment authored by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, cited another letter drafted by 35 lesser known “farm organizations” as lending their support to the draconian measures the legislation would impose on farm payments.

Among the latter were such well-known farm organizations as the California Institute for Rural Studies, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Ohio Citizen Action and the Environmental Working Group.

The majors, which included the 200,000-member American Farm Bureau Federation and commodity organizations such as the American Soybean Association, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Cotton Council and both rice producer groups, raised strong objections to the amendment in their letter:

  • If row-crop producers are forced to reduce plantings due to tighter payment limitations, acreage will likely switch to specialty crops. Increased production could drastically impact specialty crop markets.

  • A means test, at any level, disadvantages high value crop producers and livestock operators.

  • Congress enacted legislation requiring program participants to meet actively-engaged-in-farming rules and established the 3-entity rule to further limit benefits.

  • Marketing loans are designed to encourage producers to aggressively market crops; limitations on the operation of the marketing loan would contradict its primary objective; there was no limit on the marketing loan program in 1985; since then Congress has reduced the limit to $200,000 (for all crops) and then to $75,000 before temporarily increasing the limit to $150,000 in recent years to ensure that the program could achieve it's objectives.

  • A stringent payment limit amendment will overwhelm FSA employees who will be asked to implement new farm law in record time and administer these draconian new limitations.

  • The actively engaged provisions contained in the Grassley and Dorgan amendments would prevent many widowed farm wives from participating in government price support programs.

  • Recent statistics released by environmental groups overstate payments by aggregating five years of data and failing to account for the sharing of those payments to individuals in families, cooperatives, partnerships and corporations listed as recipients.

The latter referred to newspaper accounts published after the Environmental Working Group (EWG) obtained USDA records of payments to individual farmers and posted them on a Web site.

Farmers have complained that the figures were misleading because they include loan deficiency payments and marketing loan gains that help offset losses from selling their crops at below the cost of production.

But senators speaking in support of the amendment seemed more interested in obtaining relief from the critical newspaper articles taken from the EWG's misleading numbers than in listening to valid arguments from organizations representing farmers.

“I suspect that taxpayers watching this debate on television are astounded that we would be talking about limiting payments to $225,000,” said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who supported the amendment. “They probably can't imagine why we would be paying farmers such sums of money.”

“If we don't do something to address these big payments to wealthy farmers, I am concerned the taxpayers will stop farm programs altogether,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., after reciting the now all-too-familiar litany about 60 percent of farm payments going to 10 percent of the farmers.

Officials with the National Cotton Council said the vote “shows a serious lack of understanding about commercial agriculture.

“This amendment dramatically changes the impact the Agriculture Committee bill will have on America's farmers and ranchers,” said James Echols, chairman of the National Cotton Council.

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